Adventures in Colemak

01 Jul 2017

Without much warning I recently decided to learn Colemak.


Colemak is an alternative layout for keyboards. It aims to improve on both the traditional QWERTY and the only slightly better-known Dvorak by placing the commonest keys on the home row, along with certain other considerations, to improve ergonomics and comfort while typing.


This came as a bit of a surprise to me as I have always felt somewhat opposed to learning a new keyboard layout. This may have stemmed from my own frustration in the past in doubling on Clarinet and Saxophone. While the two are keyed similarly, they correspond to different “notes” as they are written down. Though it is very common for people to do this, I really don’t enjoy the feeling of disorientation at all.

The drawbacks I identified as:

  • the initial effort of learning
  • having to “double” when confronted with a QWERTY keyboard
  • really, having to collaborate with anyone on anything ever again

The supposed benefits of faster typing speed and prevention of RSI I never saw as a net gain. Which is not to say that I don’t care about those things (I take injury prevention very seriously, having blogged about this before). It’s just such an inexact science that I would welcome both of those benefits if they came, but couldn’t reasonably expect them as guaranteed.

But I think there was one other factor that has completely swung this for me that has probably not been present at any other time that I’ve been thinking about this. It is that I am incredibly bored. So bored that I don’t want to learn anything exciting like a new programming language, or even a new natural language, or how to ride a unicycle or spin poi. I’ve been craving the dull repetition that I’ve felt as a musician, a quiet confidence that if I do this dance with my hands slowly and correctly enough times, I’ll program myself to perform a new trick. I’ve been actually longing for the brain ache you get when you’re trying to do something different and your muscle memory won’t quit.


There are many of these online, but I found The Typing Cat particularly good in getting started out. Not wanting to take the plunge straight away, this let me emulate the new layout while I went through the exercises, preserving QWERTY for everything else. For the first couple of weeks I’d do QWERTY during the day and practice 1-2 hours of Colemak in the evening, until I got up to an acceptable typing speed (for me, 30 wpm, while still very slow, would not interfere too much).

Once I was ready to take the leap, I was confronted by a great number of ways to do this, ranging from reconfiguring the keyboard at the system level (useless, since X ignores it), configuring X from the command line (annoying, because those changes aren’t preserved when I make any customizations in the Gnome Tweak Tool), to discovering I could do most of this by adjusting settings in the UI. I’ll describe only what I eventually settled on in detail, in case you are trying to do this yourself and are running a similar setup to me (Debian 9/Stretch, Gnome 3, US keyboard).

To set up Colemak, simply open Settings, go to Region & Language, hit the + under Input Sources, click English then English (Colemak) and you’re done. You should now see a new thing on the top right that you can click on and select the input source you wish to use. You can also rotate input sources by hitting Super (aka Windows key) and Space.

Unfortunately I wasn’t done there because I had a few issues with some of the design choices in the only variant of Colemak offered. Namely, I didn’t want Colemak to reassign my Caps Lock key to Backspace (as I was already reassigning it to Escape), and I wanted to use my right Alt key as Meta, something I use all the time in Emacs and pretty much everything that supports the basic Emacs keybindings (see: everything worth using). While there may have been a way to customize this from the command line, I never found out what that was, and besides I wanted to find a solution that jelled as much as possible with the general solution I’ve outlined above. It was with this spirit that I decided to add my own, customized keyboard layout. If you’re having similar grumbles, read on.

First, a word of caution. You’re going to have to edit some configuration files that live in /usr/share. If that makes you queasy, I understand. I don’t especially love this solution, but I think it is the best of all solutions known to me. Either way, as a precautionary measure, I’d go ahead and backup the files we’re going to touch:

sudo cp /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us{,.backup}
sudo cp /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev.xml{,.backup}

Next we’re going to add a keyboard layout to the /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us file. It’ll be an edited version of the X.Org configuration which you can find here. It can probably go anywhere, but I inserted it immediately after the existing entry for Colemak:

// /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/us

partial alphanumeric_keys
xkb_symbols "colemak-custom" {

    include "us"
    name[Group1]= "English (Colemak Custom)";

    key <TLDE> { [        grave,   asciitilde ] };
    key <AE01> { [            1,       exclam ] };
    key <AE02> { [            2,           at ] };
    key <AE03> { [            3,   numbersign ] };
    key <AE04> { [            4,       dollar ] };
    key <AE05> { [            5,      percent ] };
    key <AE06> { [            6,  asciicircum ] };
    key <AE07> { [            7,    ampersand ] };
    key <AE08> { [            8,     asterisk ] };
    key <AE09> { [            9,    parenleft ] };
    key <AE10> { [            0,   parenright ] };
    key <AE11> { [        minus,   underscore ] };
    key <AE12> { [        equal,         plus ] };

    key <AD01> { [            q,            Q ] };
    key <AD02> { [            w,            W ] };
    key <AD03> { [            f,            F ] };
    key <AD04> { [            p,            P ] };
    key <AD05> { [            g,            G ] };
    key <AD06> { [            j,            J ] };
    key <AD07> { [            l,            L ] };
    key <AD08> { [            u,            U ] };
    key <AD09> { [            y,            Y ] };
    key <AD10> { [    semicolon,        colon ] };
    key <AD11> { [  bracketleft,    braceleft ] };
    key <AD12> { [ bracketright,   braceright ] };
    key <BKSL> { [    backslash,          bar ] };

    key <AC01> { [            a,            A ] };
    key <AC02> { [            r,            R ] };
    key <AC03> { [            s,            S ] };
    key <AC04> { [            t,            T ] };
    key <AC05> { [            d,            D ] };
    key <AC06> { [            h,            H ] };
    key <AC07> { [            n,            N ] };
    key <AC08> { [            e,            E ] };
    key <AC09> { [            i,            I ] };
    key <AC10> { [            o,            O ] };
    key <AC11> { [   apostrophe,     quotedbl ] };

    key <AB01> { [            z,            Z ] };
    key <AB02> { [            x,            X ] };
    key <AB03> { [            c,            C ] };
    key <AB04> { [            v,            V ] };
    key <AB05> { [            b,            B ] };
    key <AB06> { [            k,            K ] };
    key <AB07> { [            m,            M ] };
    key <AB08> { [        comma,         less ] };
    key <AB09> { [       period,      greater ] };
    key <AB10> { [        slash,     question ] };

    key <LSGT> { [        minus,   underscore ] };
    key <SPCE> { [        space,        space ] };

Next you need to register it as a variant of the US keyboard layout:

<!-- /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev.xml -->
<xkbConfigRegistry version="1.1">
  <!-- ... -->
      <!-- ... -->
        <!-- ... -->
        <!-- Insert this stuff =-> -->
            <description>English (Colemak Custom)</description>

Finally, you’ll need to bust the xkb cache. I read about how to do this here, but it didn’t seem to work for me (most likely differences between Ubuntu and Debian, or different versions). So to prevent giving you the same disappointment, I’m going to tell you the best way to get this done that is sure to work: restart your damn computer. If you can figure out a better way, that’s great.

Having done all the above, you should now be able to select your Colemak (Custom) layout in the same way by going through the settings in the UI.

Since I’ve made the switch, I’ve seen my speed steadily increasing up to 50-60 wpm. That’s still kind of slow for me, but I have every confidence that it will continue to increase. I think doing drills has helped with that. Since I have no need for emulation anymore, I’ve found the CLI utility gtypist to be particularly good. I try to do the “Lesson C16/Frequent Words” exercises for Colemak every day.